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We don't need Melania's help

Last week, author and playwright Sofi Oksanen criticized First Lady Melania Trump for not using her power to improve the image of Eastern European women.

Slovenian historian and author Manca Renko responds by pointing out how Slovenia actually beats the US in gender equality.

Detta är en kulturartikel, där skribenter kan uttrycka personliga åsikter och göra bedömningar av konstnärliga verk.

Dear Sofi,

I have fond memories of the dinner in Ljubljana to which I invited you, a celebrated writer, as the director of the Fabula literary festival. We also talked about my fellow national, Melania Trump.

I don’t recall what I tried to communicate about her in my “Eastern European” accent, most likely it was nothing of great importance since the feelings that I hold toward her resemble those I hold toward any other person I merely share a nationality with, this lowest common denominator among people, and these are minimal.

Yet I felt spoken to reading your letter. You surely must be familiar with the retort that to this day remains resilient and truthful, even though (or perhaps precisely because) women so often utter it to men in B films and literature: “I didn’t feel humiliated until you told me that’s the way I should feel.” In short: I was not aware of the fact that I had a problem as an “Eastern European” woman, even more, I didn’t even consider myself as an “Eastern European” woman until you described me as one.

If I had to lean against a single point of identification, I would have simply gone with being a woman: one who doesn’t care about the nationality of exploiting men, and the nationality of exploited women.

READ MORE: Sofi Oksanen's letter to Melania Trump

Prostitution – a male problem

The first women’s newspaper published in Slovenia, Slovenka, began its circulation at the turn of the 20th century. Its authors courageously probed into themes not found in “men-oriented” publications, for instance prostitution. Their position on the matter – still relevant today – was that prostitution presented a moral problem only insofar it involved men. I think similarly of your written statements about Melania Trump’s Slavic accent that was supposedly signalling everyone she is “for sale, and cheap”.

I am also endowed with a similar accent, one I thought could be attributed to my lacking English skills or not having an ear for it. Nothing more than that. And had anyone ever thought more of it, it would be their own, not mine, nor Melania’s moral problem.

The same holds for the “certain reputation” of Eastern European girls, that you write about – it isn’t their problem as much as it is a problem of exploiting men that take possession of their bodies, and men that have turned the countries of these women into abysses, so often impossible to ascend out of even while putting up their own bodies up for sale. 

Harvey Weinstein

You suggest Melania Trump should establish a foundation for abused (Eastern European?) women. I think that diplomatic meetings, formal handshakes and provisionally established foundations with the sole aim of keeping up appearances when it comes to women’s rights can never be as effective as proper law enforcement (with the aid of judicial and media spheres), that will be eager to discipline the perpetrators; those who reckon they can take possession of a woman’s body solely on the basis of colour or accent; those who refuse young girls their right to education; those who bargain with people like goods; those who oppress the downtrodden, independent of their sex.

It doesn’t make a major difference if we consider Eastern Europe or Hollywood jet-set, where the recent affair involving Harvey Weinstein vividly illustrates that even the most prominent and affluent Hollywood women are not at a substantial advantage over their Eastern European counterparts when it comes to respecting the integrity of their bodies. I highly doubt that our heroine could be a spouse to a man who clearly segregates the population into first or second class citizens – a man who is not only in favour of criminalizing abortion, but even considers banning contraceptives.

There is so much that you alone are doing already, and can continue to do. The sincerity of your female characters with their riveting and real voices surely inspire and go further than a woman in a pretty dress in a position of power.

Melania's worse off

As Melania’s compatriot I think she has moved to a place where she is worse off: had she stayed, she would have lived in a (Eastern European) country that comes eighth in pay equality among men and women according to WEF figures (USA comes in at 45th place), in a country that ensures a free of charge and accessible abortion, charge-free contraceptives and a one year payed maternity leave (also available to men).

She would have lived in a country where a civil initiative dethroned one of the most established Slovenian writers from the position of president of PEN on the grounds of sexism. I am not saying that women in Slovenia have no problems, that casual day-to-day sexism sometimes isn’t unbearable, that we are not afraid of the ascent of neo-conservative movements and parties, or that women have equal prospects than men when it comes to positions of leadership.

But still: the last thing we need is assistance from Melania or the USA; as far as I know the latest imports from the latter include bachelorette parties and babyshowers.

Neither of them seem to me to be in particular favour of women’s emancipation.

Protests in Poland

Poland was one of the first countries where abortions were allowed, where “Eastern European” women, as you call them, got a right to make decisions about their own bodies. 

When the east-west block divide, which you refer to, fell, Polish women lost these rights.

The moment when “Eastern Europe” started to believe that convergence with the West will lead to a ubiquitous prosperity was the moment of great transitional malevolence, women being the first-line victims. The solution lies not in soliciting perpetrators (or their wives) to make amends for their mistakes, but to take matters into our own hands. Last year, less than a month before Melania Trump became the First Lady of The United States, there was a czarny protest in Poland. Tens of thousands of women dressed in black took to the streets in an attempt to save the last remains of justice they had left.

You see, dear Sofi, I believe these are the heroines that we need. It is these and other women (not strictly Eastern European), that we should be addressing. Instead of calculated evening attires and bad speeches we need awareness, mass mobilization and empathy. Instead of a pair of high heels we need thousands of feet marching toward set goals and justice.

Heroism is not an individual’s stance, but rather a collective feat. 

Manca G. Renko

Manca G. Renko is artistic director of Fabula literary festival in Ljubljana, Slovenia, editor and historian. In 2017 she published her first book Lastno življenje (A Life of One’s Own).